Research into “neurogenesis”—the ability of certain brain areas to grow new brain cells—has recently taken an exciting turn. Not only has research discovered that we can foster new brain cell growth through exercise, but it may eventually be possible to “bottle” that benefit in prescription medication.
The hippocampus, a brain area closely linked to learning and memory, is especially receptive to new neuron growth in response to endurance exercise. Exactly how and why this happens wasn’t well understood until recently. Research has discovered that exercise stimulates the production of a protein called FNDC5 that is released into the bloodstream while we’re breaking a sweat. Over time, FNDC5 stimulates the production of another protein in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which in turns stimulates the growth of new nerves and synapses—the connection points between nerves—and also preserves the survival of existing brain cells.
What this boils down to in practice is that regular endurance exercise, like jogging, strengthens and grows your brain. In particular, your memory and ability to learn get a boost from hitting the pavement. Along with the other well-established benefits of endurance exercise, such as improved heart health, this is a pretty good reason to get moving. If jogging isn’t your thing, there’s a multitude of other ways to trigger the endurance effect—even brisk walking on a regular basis yields brain benefits.
Now researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School (HMS) have also discovered that it may be possible to capture these benefits in a pill. The same protein that stimulates brain growth via exercise could potentially be bottled and given to patients experiencing cognitive decline, including those in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
"What is exciting is that a natural substance can be given in the bloodstream that can mimic some of the effects of endurance exercise on the brain," said Bruce Spiegelman, PhD, of Dana-Farber and HMS and co-senior author of the research report with Michael E. Greenberg, PhD, chair of neurobiology at HMS.
In the new study, the research team artificially increased BDNF in the brains of mice by using a harmless virus to piggyback FNDC5 molecules through the bloodstream of the mice. After seven days, researchers found a significant increase in BDNF in the hippocampus area of the mice brains – the brain area crucial for memory and learning.
"Perhaps the most exciting result overall is that peripheral delivery of FNDC5 with adenoviral vectors (i.e. a virus) is sufficient to induce central expression of BDNF and other genes with potential neuroprotective functions or those involved in learning and memory," the authors said.
The research team cautions that since this is an animal study, it’s far too early to conclude that the same effect will work in humans, but the significant results of this study show promise for future research into delivering cognitive benefits to the human brain via a similar mechanism. Cognitive boost for suffers of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other debilitating diseases in the form of a brain-growth pill may not be too far off.
More immediately, neurogenesis research has provided yet another great reason to get up, get out and get moving.
The research report was published in the journal Cell Metabolism.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative and at his website, The Daily Brain. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain's Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.